Intersections: 1st and C SE: Overheard (or not) near at the Capitol’s southern corner

In his weekly series, staff writer Robert Samuels explores the District, street corner by street corner.

On the corner of First Street and C Street SE is the key to the world’ s most powerful government: a map describing the layout of the U.S. Capitol and the offices of the lawmakers who argue within. It is the intersection of patriotism and political gridlock, where tourists can gape with wonder or disdain.

When the evening rush comes, the barrier roars up from the Cannon House Office Building’s parking lot as a car passes. The suit-and-tie set spills out of government offices and flocks down the hill to the Capitol South Metro station. They pull out a newspaper from one of the 38 stands lining this intersection (the Onions are all gone; copies of the New York Times are not). It is a corner passed by the powerful, if not the well read.

So what can be gleaned here about our city, our country and our world? What government secrets — even when Congress is not in session — might be leaked, meant to be shared only with a person on the other side of a cellphone?

“Outsourcing is not going to work,’’ says a middle-aged man with gelled hair and a slim-fit suit with a blue-and-white tie, smartphone cradled between shoulder and chin. “You’re not going to get anything near the quality you expect. And you’ll wind up spending so much more.”

“Are you really not going to bring a gift?” asks a young woman in a fur coat with white buds in her ears. “I don’t know if I respect that position.”

“These people cannot handle the contract,’’ a woman in rose-tinted glasses says. “They are too small. We want big ideas.”

These are times when people love to speculate on things overheard. The Web site DCist has its “Overheard in DC” section; there’s also an independent LiveJournal, Blogspot, and a Tumblr account that all use that phrase to capture snippets of idle chatter.

“If you listen to conversations, perhaps I think you could figure out how government works,” says Miranda Beckman, a 35-year-old worker at a nonprofit organization as she walks on the Hill with her 5-week-old daughter, Gemma. But she’s never really heard or seen anything too interesting, aside from a presidential motorcade on the way to a turkey pardon.

As the suits walk out of the Capitol, they begin to shed government responsibility and shoulder the realities of any ordinary American.

“No, I will not be joining you for dinner tonight. I’m still upset about this morning.”

“What do you mean, you didn’t pick him up from school?”

“Suspended?! What do you mean suspended? Not again.”

They walk quickly, and most of them walk alone. Almost 5,000 people use this stop between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., Metro says, but it can be eerily quiet despite the bustle.

Patty Viafara, 31, who walks past the intersection on her way home, wonders why. Maybe they are too afraid of what might be overheard. Maybe they’re just tired.

“Around here, it’s very dry,’’ she says.

Two friends walk together. One carries a poster declaring “LGBT for Obama”; the other, a water bottle that reads “Romney: Believe in America.”

On some street corners in the city, residents don’t give their names to people because they fear shots will be fired at them. Here, they won’t give their names because they fear their boss will fire them.

“I’ll just say this,’’ the woman with the Romney water bottle says. “You can always tell here who is a tourist and who is not.”

The residents come out of the Metro station in sweats and jeans because they live here. They have no pretenses. The workers are fast and looking at the ground, just trying to get through the daily tedium of working life.

And the tourists? Well, they look like the family walking behind the Romney water-bottle woman, led by a 9-year-old named Benjamin Ellsworth. The Ellsworths work as missionaries in Belize and are on their first trip to the nation’s capital. They still have much to see — $10.22 is still on their Farecards.

Benjamin looks up at the map of the Capitol on First and C, smiles at his mom and dad and says:

“Being right here, I feel like I’m dreaming.”

Robert Samuels

For more in this series, visit postlocal.com. Have a favorite intersection? E-mail Robert at samuelsr@washpost.com.

Robert Samuels writes for the Post’s social issues team. In Maryland, he focuses on issues affecting low-income children and families. He also covers life in the District.
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